I’m in the Surrey Hills with Will. He’s an old friend; an old friend who was definitely faster than me. But I’ve not ridden with him for a few years and so when we meet in Dorking for a catch up ride over 100 miles in the summer sunshine, I’m feeling that serene sense of invincibility and misguided optimism that usually precedes an embarrassing episode of being totally shown up on two wheels. As I’m about to find out, the Surrey Hills is not a place where you can get away with it.
Surrey Hills. The clue is in the name. We’re following the epic route of the Box Hill Original Sportive, a 100-mile loop out of Dorking that criss-crosses a purple patch of picturesque and quintessentially British countryside, which, as we’ve established, is quite hilly.
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A fast, smooth climb; attack the hairpins but leave a bit in the tank for the false flat at the top.
Ranmore Common Road
A gentle approach is followed by a steep hairpin bend, although it’s short enough to power through to the top.
A gentle climb where any steep sections don’t last for too long, it’s a hill you can comfortably ride at a steady tempo in the saddle.
A fast rise up through the airy forests around Peaslake, home to the number one mountain bike destination in the Surrey Hills.
A deep, dark tunnel of trees that is less than a kilometre long but with enough bite to let you know it’s there.
A real toughie but a gentler middle section offers brief respite. There are eight different ways up; a separate event riding every one of them is called ‘the Octopus’.
White Down Hill
Demanding a flat-out effort, once you complete the shallow preamble it gets very steep and stays very steep. Pace yourself on the first hairpin and cling on for as long as you can.
Just how hilly the ride is becomes immediately apparent as we ride out of Dorking and through Westhumble, a steady climb past Pilgrim Cycles bike shop and cafe that soon has us rearing up into the trees and into a corkscrew-like hairpin up to Denbies wine estate. It’s a classic Surrey Hills climb, starting off gentle with high earth banks and a tunnel of foliage where, if you can see the light at the end it usually means you’re on a 25 per cent hairpin bend and in quite a bit of discomfort. In winter these roads can be pretty mucky with the mulch of all those leaves but in summer, besides the
odd pothole or patch of gravel, the roads are clear as you roll through dappled pools of sunlight. From late September and into the early autumn the leaves start to turn and the hills are alive, turning golden brown with the final flame of summer. It’s a sight to behold.
There’s a short section of flat respite along past the common at Ranmore but soon enough Will and I find ourselves rolling up and down on little lanes, a pattern that is repeated all through the day. We both used to ride in Northumberland and County Durham and if you picked up some of the most famous climbs in Surrey and dumped them on the northern Pennines, you’d barely bat an eyelid at them. In fact we both distinctly remember riding up a bigger hill than anything around here just to get to the car park where our former cycling club used to meet. But the thing about riding in this part of the country is that these hills are relentless. They’re not always especially long or steep, but they come on narrow roads and with such regularity that you really have to appreciate the flats when you get them, because more often than not it won’t be long until you shift down to the little ring and get out of the saddle again. Indeed, over the 100 miles of the route there is over 6,500 feet of climbing. That’s like climbing Alpe d’Huez twice, but instead of a nice steady alpine gradient for a couple of hours it’s a case of short, sharp sprints up steep ramps. As we soldier on it becomes clear that this ride is very much epic in both name and nature.
Into a rural idyll
Fortunately, as we head into the middle section of the route we head south from the cluster of hills, a little bit further away from the London Orbital, and take in some more gently rolling lanes. The route skirts past lush hedgerows, village greens and village pubs, plus there’s the Dunsfold airfield, home to local bike racing and the test track for a notorious motoring show.
The flatter roads and good surface means you can sit up and enjoy the scenery — in theory.
Will and I reminisce about past club runs, when he used to race in the elite category in national level competitions. It doesn’t take very long to realise that he is still faster than me. He claims that he’s had almost a year off the bike, but as I closely study the contents of his jersey pockets and inspect the mechanical workings of a Specialized Venge seatpost collar (which, I can now inform you, is one of the cycling world’s more interesting seatpost collars, as seatpost collars go) I’m not so sure he’s telling the truth. His bike’s still got a race number holder attached to it just above the brakes.
Vivid memories start flooding back. I remember the war games your mind plays with your legs just to keep going. I remember the nightmare-inducing visions where all you see is a shiny silver Shimano Ultegra rear derailleur shifting endlessly down to a smaller cog and moving away from you.
While we are slogging it up and down the lanes, it’s nice to know that on this part of the ride you don’t have to just to get around. The middle section is the nice soft, cheese filling to a very thick, crusty sandwich; and you can choose whether you want a soft creamy mozzarella or a full whack Stinking Bishop. Will is clearly on an Epoisses de Bourgogne kind of day (a cheese so potent that it is banned from being taken on French public transport).
The fields roll on by and we drift out into the Weald, where the thick hedges buzz with insects and the roads shimmer in the summer heat. It’s the kind of countryside that England does so well. In fact it’s hard to find anything like this in cycling’s heartlands on the Continent. Belgium is a patchwork quilt of fields stitched together by little lanes but in the densely populated Benelux you’re never all that far from a settlement big enough to have a bar with Jupiler on tap. In the mountains of the Alps or the Pyrenees you’re either riding along a pan-flat valley road, slaving away up a 10 per cent gradient or flying at full pelt down it.
Professionals always find racing in the UK tougher than in Europe. This is partly because they’re forever racing on lanes that take them up and down and around and about, disrupting any rhythm, but also partly because British local authorities are often
less inclined to lay a smooth, road bike-friendly carpet of blacktop asphalt than randomly scatter a truck load of aggregate surface dressing and head home for lunch.
The downside for pros is that they have to pump out more watts to keep their usual pace. The upside for us Brits is that it makes us tough cyclists. In fact the closest landscape to the UK is perhaps Brittany, and that part of France is the region that produced Bernard Hinault, one of the toughest cyclists of all time. Where some icons of the sport have been named after birds of prey — Federico Bahamontes was known as ‘the Eagle of Toledo’ and Fausto Coppi sometimes simply as ‘the Heron’ — this feisty Breton won five Tours de France with an aggression and grit that helped him earn the nickname ‘the Badger.’ He gets back on his bike to promote the Tour de France every now and again and, despite being 60, has lost none of that fire in his eyes. He could ride a sit-on lawnmower and still look mean.
The terrible trio
As we loop back and point our noses north, we need to channel our inner Hinault for the final third of the ride. It’s the holy trinity of Surrey Hills: Leith, White Down and Box. Will and I exchange glances. We’ve got all three to tick off, in 20 miles, at the end of a long day in the saddle, having covered 80 miles already.
The first of those, Leith Hill, creeps up on you. The approach is gentle and never too steep as the roads gradually start getting more undulating once again, but once you’re on it you certainly know about it. There’s a right turn, the road narrows, and you can glimpse the tower at the top, which is a lot higher than you hoped it would be. This was the toughest climb on the route of the inaugural RideLondon-Surrey Classic in 2013 (although it was skipped in 2014) and while it doesn’t usually give the professionals too much to think about, you can see how this would be a nasty place to be caught on a bad day. The RideLondon sportive was, however, a different matter altogether — a slow lane of traffic that had ditched two wheels for two feet in an attempt to make it to the top. Fortunately Will and I can at least hold a conversation today, even if it does become a confusingly disjointed series of words towards the summit. But that’s a lot more than can be said for hill number two: White Down hill.
It sounds pleasant enough, conjuring thoughts of gradually ascending through rolling chalk grasslands with little animals scampering about in butterfly-filled wild flower meadows. It is pretty (if lacking scampering animals) but after nearly 80 miles let’s politely say that it’s very, very steep. After a fast descent of Leith Hill through the trees and a gradual drag back up for half a mile, it all kicks off at the first bend, shaped like a back-to-front question mark, by which point you’re half the distance to the top but nowhere near halfway through the struggle. The final section never really drops below 15 per cent, and with a sharp 25 per cent bend to get going, your legs don’t have any easy introduction.
White Down doesn’t go as high as Leith Hill but it’s a lot harder; one of those climbs where you’re never quite sure whether to churn a slow cadence in the saddle or stand up and try to push through it. People talk about riding a bike in order to find their limits; well you certainly don’t have to look very hard on White Down hill.
Entering the Goldilocks zone
We’ve saved ourselves a little treat for negotiating White Down hill: a trip up what is possibly the most famous cycling road in England. In fact on weekend mornings this has got to have one of the highest concentrations of cyclists in the country, save perhaps for the high streets in Oxford or Cambridge (however, these places have a lot more wicker baskets and a lot fewer Garmin-Sharp replica jerseys).
Box Hill is very much the Mumford and Sons of Surrey Hill climbs — lots of people like to say they were into it before it went mainstream, in this case thanks to the Olympic Games road races. Most of them aren’t lying; Box Hill is a Goldilocks climb that is both very close to the capital (it’s probably the first decent hill for anyone riding out from south-west London) and exceptionally fun to ride. You can positively zoom up it. So even before the mania of Team GB and Sir Bradley Wiggins washed over its slopes, this little climb was a Mecca for cyclists, the gentle preamble to a long day out in the lanes or a goal in itself.
In tyre tracks of Olympians
It feels like the Alps, if you squint a little bit and it’s not raining. There are two hairpins, which in this part of the world are called the zig-zags, plus some exposed grassy banks like the lower slopes of a big mountain col. There are great views from the top too; the railway line darting south around Dorking and the jets carving up the air out of Gatwick and away into the clouds. It strikes just the right balance between steepness and speed so you don’t have to be whippet-thin to really enjoy it. The really tricky bit, however, is the false flat beyond the final bend and the cafe at the top. Imagine doing this nine times in a row at race pace like the blokes did at the Olympics. That certainly can’t have been exceptionally fun to ride.
With fresh legs Box Hill is child’s play, but after 90 miles it gives you that satisfying (if excruciating) sensation of squeezing every last drop of energy out of your legs like wringing water from a wet tea towel. Predictably it’s along this final drag that the elastic that has miraculously been holding me to Will’s rear wheel snaps in spectacular fashion and I crawl through the village along the top with that tickly feeling in my throat that only comes after six hours of very heavy breathing. Mercifully all that’s remaining is a fast descent along a narrow lane called Little Switzerland and we’re soon back in Dorking.
Sometimes you can ride 100 miles almost by accident, but the Surrey Hills is not a place where that happens very often. Indeed us Brits have the perfect word for roads like these: grippy. Rolling back into Dorking, Will and I both agree that we can feel every last bit of what we’ve just ridden.
Pro riders talk about good pain and bad pain. When your joints feel and sound like they are lubricated by Hobnobs, or when you’re shocked by a lightning bolt of a muscle strain or an inflamed tendon: that’s bad pain.
That itchiness in the pits of your lungs, those slightly aching wrists, the white noise in your legs that makes you shuffle around pathetically and want to lie down all the time, and the sting in your eyes in the shower when those crusts of sweat around your eyebrows dissolve and drip down your face. That’s the good pain. Our well-earned pain.
We also both experience that warm and fuzzy endorphin-fuelled sense of achievement (and, perhaps, smugness) that comes with the good pain.
Will probably leaves with a sense of pleasant surprise that his ‘break’ from cycling hasn’t left him as unfit as it could have done, while I leave with the resolve that the next time we meet for a catch up ride I am better prepared.
Next time I’ll be ready to give him his dose of back wheel gazing.